When the two largest political parties in a country agree on nearly every policy proposal ahead of a national election, that usually bodes well for the incumbent. After all, why vote for change if the challenger doesn’t offer anything really different?
So it seemed Sunday night, as Germany’s two leading candidates for chancellor – incumbent Angela Merkel, vying for her fourth term, and her first-time challenger Martin Schulz – faced off in their first and only televised debate ahead of the September 24 federal election.
Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union went into the debate with about 38 percent in national polls, 14 percentage points ahead of Mr. Schulz’s center-left Social Democrats. A host of smaller parties are vying for third place, each polling under 10 percent: the Left Party and Greens on the left of the political spectrum; the Free Democrats just to the right of center; and the Alternative For Germany on the far-right.
It’s a monumental gap for Mr. Schulz to close. But with about 40 percent of the electorate telling pollsters they remain undecided, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility. Still, time is running short, and Sunday night’s debate seems unlikely to usher the turning point the SPD challenger may have needed.
“Many commonalities, few differences – certainly not the sounding bell of a comeback for Martin Schulz.”
Flash polling by Infratest for public broadcaster ARD showed that Ms. Merkel won rather clearly, 55 percent to 35 percent, with 48 percent of the undecided voters favoring her performance compared to 36 percent for Mr. Schulz. It was among her best debate results in the 12 years that she has been German chancellor.
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz faced off in a 90-minute debate that included clashes on refugees, terrorism, the state of the European Union, and how to deal with difficult world leaders ranging from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Donald Trump. For a German voter hoping to decide which candidate to choose, or a European hoping to glean some sense of how Germany might differ depending on the election’s outcome, there wasn’t much to distinguish.
“This was a substantive but not a decisive duel,” said Frank Brettschneider, communications professor from the University of Hohenheim. “Many commonalities, few differences – certainly not the sounding bell of a comeback for Martin Schulz.”
Both candidates backed Ms. Merkel’s humanitarian decision to open Germany’s borders to a wave of more than 1 million asylum seekers in 2015-2016, though Mr. Schulz grumbled that there could have been more European coordination. Both said Islam is fundamentally compatible with German society, even if refugees must respect German law and values. They urged patience when it comes to integration, while promising to speed up deportation of more than 200,000 whose applications have been rejected.
Both candidates vowed to take a hard line with Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president and said they didn’t support Turkey becoming an EU member. One minor difference came when Mr. Schulz vowed to make ending EU membership talks official policy. Ms. Merkel urged for the door to remain at least slightly open (even if such talks haven’t moved forward for months), to provide breathing room while Germany negotiates for the return of more than a dozen citizens meanwhile imprisoned there. “I don’t intend to break off diplomatic relations with Turkey, simply because we’re trying to outdo each other on toughness in this election campaign,” she said. Neither proposed ending a controversial aid deal by which Turkey has been given cash to keep refugees from entering Europe.
“We need the United States as a power for peace, and we have to do everything we can to bring them toward responsible solutions.”
Another minor difference, perhaps, came over dealing with the United States. While both leaders condemned Mr. Trump’s most controversial stances and urged a peaceful solution to North Korea, it was Ms. Merkel who seemed more inclined to try to keep the Trump administration in the fold. “We need the United States as a power for peace, and we have to do everything we can to bring them toward responsible solutions,” she said. Mr. Schulz, by contrast, suggested Europe might replace the “erratic” United States and instead play the “diplomatic bridge” to a country like North Korea.
There were also some broader differences, if not on substance then on approach, to Europe. Mr. Schulz, a long-time president of the European Parliament, seemed more optimistic of pan-European solutions to crises, calling for example for a pan-European asylum law. Ms. Merkel, perhaps because of her own experience as leader of Germany during these tumultuous past few years, seemed resigned that national solutions were often more realistic. “It’s better that we do things at the European level, but we can also achieve things nationally,” she said.
Turning back to Germany, both candidates complained that the car industry had broken consumers’ trust by installing cheat software in diesel engines, but agreed on the same rather limited solutions: German law should be reformed to allow some class-action lawsuits (currently forbidden), while carmakers should pay to have diesel cars refitted and even bought back from consumers. But with some 800,000 German jobs dependent on the vaunted auto industry, neither candidate pushed for broader fines of the industry, along the lines of the billions in fines that Volkswagen has paid in the United States, nor did they support some cities’ efforts to ban diesel cars altogether.
This was supposed to be Mr. Schulz’s chance to turn the table. With about half of Germany’s 60 million eligible voters tuning in, and no smaller parties present to distract from his message, the Social Democrat had his best opportunity yet to introduce himself to voters looking for an alternative.
But Ms. Merkel, even if she didn’t steal the show, basked in the spotlight.
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global, currently based in Washington DC. Dana Heide of Handelsblatt and John Blau of Handelsblatt Global contributed to this story. To contact the author: email@example.com